The prevalence of the metabolic syndrome is rapidly increasing. This syndrome is characterized by metabolic disturbances, such as abnormal lipid and carbohydrate metabolism and a low-grade inflammatory state. PPARs play an important role in these metabolic processes, which makes them effective targets for treatment and prevention of the metabolic syndrome. Synthetic PPAR agonists, such as fibrates and thiazolidinediones are already used to treat hyperlipidemia and diabetes mellitus, respectively. Besides synthetic ligands, dietary fatty acids and fatty acid derivatives can also bind to an activate PPARs. As demonstrated with ligand-binding assays, PPARs have a clear preference of binding polyunsaturated fatty acids. Monounsaturated fatty acids are also very effective in binding PPARs, whereas saturated fatty acids are poor PPAR binders. However, ligand binding does not necessarily mean transcriptional activation. Therefore, it is important to investigate transactivation properties of dietary fatty acids as PPAR agonists and their role in metabolic reactions. Furthermore, human intervention studies comparing the effects of natural versus synthetic ligands side-by-side may reveal specific fatty acids that exert beneficial PPAR-mediated metabolic effects. The ability of PPARs to sense fatty acids and to mediate lipid metabolism, glucose metabolism and the inflammatory state makes them excellent targets for dietary modulation in order to prevent and treat the metabolic syndrome and associated diseases. This review discusses the role and function of PPARs and their ligands in light of the metabolic syndrome.